After Donald Trump’s election in 2016, political analysts, journalists, and general citizens the world over were scratching their heads, wondering where it all went wrong. Many blamed “backwards” religious zealots from mysterious middle America who didn’t know any better. But in the ensuing years, which have seen increased popularity and visibility of far-right ideology, the gap of misunderstanding and miscommunication has only seemed to get bigger.
Will Arbery’s newest play Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which seems loosely based on his own upbringing as a child of conservative Catholic professors at Wyoming Catholic College, dives into one of the communities popular media claims to be so opaque to explore the overlap of politics and religion and the underlying desires, needs, and impulses that these characters use to navigate a time of great uncertainty. The script borrows its title from a theory developed by Neil Howe and William Strauss which breaks history down into cycles in order to explain and predict major economic, social, and political change and categorises people by archetypes much like generational categorisation or astrological charts. For Arbery’s characters, their positioning as heroes in the fourth turning appears to them like a call to action to make sure their brand of conservative Catholicism survives the impending war for Western civilisation.
Their beloved teacher Gina (Kate Raison) has just been appointed as president of the Catholic college they all attended so Justin (Jeremy Waters) is hosting a reunion of sorts. It’s been a long 7 years since they all graduated with Emily (Micaela Ellis) developing a painful chronic illness, Teresa (Madeleine Jones) moving to New York City to become a popular far-right blogger, Justin settling in to a teacher’s position at the college, and Kevin (Eddie Orton) treading water in a dead-end job in Oklahoma. They thought they had a clear sense of themselves when they graduated but the return to their old stomping ground leaves them each shaken and unsure of their purpose in the world.
The dialogue was dense and meaty, covering Catholicism, apocalypse, abortion, Trump, guns, and notions of grace, empathy, and forgiveness. What allowed the script to bear such weight was the specificity with which Arbery constructed his characters and their world; they were each fully formed with inner and outer lives that stretched beyond the confines of this place and time. Director Craig Baldwin honoured these characters with a minute attention to detail and an ear for the ordinary as seen in the realistic pacing and a particular comfort in silence, which was reminiscent of Baldwin’s other productions with Outhouse Theatre Co The Flick and John. The set design by Soham Apte with its blackened fire pit and scattered leaves was also appropriately realistic and provided the, sometimes necessary, grounding to the characters’ occasionally extreme views.
But the production didn’t shy away from the oddities of the script from an unexplained screeching that broke through the darkness to a moment of transcendental rage lit by Lucia Haddad in an icy, blinding white light. These moments formed a kind of middle ground in the production between the gasping audience and the conservative characters where the inexplicability was mutual. Or they were simple relief between the scrambling, desperate characterisation of Kevin as looking for something, anything, to hold on to and the rigid certainty of Teresa, eroding even as she tried so hard to stand strong against roaring tides.
This is the kind of script and story Outhouse Theatre Co thrives with: uncomfortable, passionate, and political. And the performers did not disappoint. Waters’s Justin was stoic and seemingly simple until given the space to let his voice out. He provided a stable central figure around which the more heady, intellectual conversation could swirl. Ellis’s Emily was the kind of warm, good woman many can imagine coming from a small Wyoming town but her pragmatism revealed a hardened edge which made for an interesting balance in her perspective. Kevin was particularly sympathetically portrayed by Orton as a very lost soul, struggling to reconcile his learnings with his experience and his thoughts with his feelings. But Jones and Raison were certainly the most commanding presences in Justin’s backyard. Jones was completely convincing as a Bannon-supporting viral viper who repeatedly drew blood from her unsuspecting peers but Raison was a brutal opponent. Whether you agreed with one, both, or neither, the dynamic between the two was electric and a powerful demonstration of how self-cannibalising a certain strain of righteous political posturing can be.
Outhouse Theatre Co and Seymour Centre have repeatedly shown themselves to be a precise and professional pairing unlike any other producing theatre in Sydney. Heroes of the Fourth Turning is provocative, uncomfortable, and a true representation of our changeable times.
Heroes of the Fourth Turning is running at Seymour Centre from March 31st – April 23rd
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